Scandinavian Bishops’ Letter on Sexuality Exemplifies Tension in Catholic LGBTQ+ Issues

Members of the Scandinavian Bishops’ Conference

The tension between the Catholic social justice tradition and the sexual/gender ethics tradition when discussing LGBTQ+ issues was on display in a recent pastoral letter issued by the Nordic Bishops’ Conference.  

Simply titled “Pastoral Letter on Human Sexuality,” the Catholic bishops from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland wrote about the “noble aspirations” of the LGBTQ+ movement. They claim to share a similar desire for the movement’s goals of promoting the “dignity of all human beings and of their longing to be seen.” However, the bishops also assert that the “image of God in human nature manifests itself in the complementarity of male and female,” and they criticize views that support same-gender sexual relationships and expansive views about gender.

Co-signed by eight church leaders and read at Masses at the end of Lent, the letter states:

“This covenantal sign, the rainbow, is claimed in our time as the symbol of a movement that is at once political and cultural. We recognise all that is noble in this movement’s aspirations. In so far as these speak of the dignity of all human beings and of their longing to be seen, we share them. The Church condemns unjust discrimination of any kind, also on the basis of gender or orientation. We declare dissent, however, when the movement puts forward a view of human nature that abstracts from the embodied integrity of personhood, as if physical gender were accidental. And we protest when such a view is imposed on children as if it were not a daring hypothesis but a proven truth, imposed on minors as a heavy burden of self-determination for which they are not ready.”

The bishops, who collectively represent under a half million Catholics, commit themselves to a pastoral response. They affirm that in the church “there is room for all,” and even hint at a more positive appraisal of queer relationships:

“As your bishops we stress this: we are here for everyone, to accompany all. The yearning for love and the search for sexual wholeness touch human beings intimately. In this area we are vulnerable. Patience is called for on the path towards wholeness, and joy in every forward step. A quantum leap is made, for example, in progress from promiscuity to fidelity, whether or not the faithful relationship fully corresponds to the objective order of a nuptial union sacramentally blessed. Every search for integrity is worthy of respect, deserving of encouragement. Growth in wisdom and virtue is organic. It happens gradually. At the same time growth, to be fruitful, must proceed towards a goal.”

However, the letter also heavily endorses gender complementarianism, or the idea of a strict sex binary in which male/female complementarity are key, and rejects developments in understandings of sexuality and gender, referring to them as being “in flux” and “passing theories.” The bishops write:

“Many are perplexed by traditional Christian teaching on sexuality. To such we offer a word of friendly counsel. First: try to acquaint yourself with Christ’s call and promise, to know him better through the Scriptures and in prayer, through the liturgy and study of the Church’s full teaching, not just of snippets here and there. Take part in the Church’s life. The horizon of the questions with which you set out will be enlarged in this way, as will your mind and heart. Secondly, consider the limitations of a purely secular discourse on sexuality. It needs to be enriched.”

In an interview with The Tablet, Bishop Erik Varden of Trondheim explained that the letter is a response to contemporary debates about identity. Varden remarked:

“‘It seems obvious that the central challenge of Christian proclamation today is anthropological. “What is man?” This question, posed in the Psalms, occupies our times intensely. Discussion is focussed on the area of sexuality, which touches the human being at its most intimate. Strong emotions arise. It is crucial to take discourse beyond emotional rhetoric. It is crucial to consider the question of human – and consequently sexual – identity in the light of God’s creative and redemptive work in Christ.'”

This letter from the Nordic Bishops’ Conference highlights the common tension in how Catholics approach LGBTQ+ issues: should the primary lens be the church’s sex and gender ethics or its social justice tradition? The bishops attempt to answer somewhere in the middle. The pastoral letter shows no evidence of consultation with any LGBTQ+ people or contemporary science, and this lack of open communication echoes a painful trend in recent church documents that fail to reason with science and listen to the experience of the LGBTQ+ community.

It is debatable whether the bishops found the balance they sought, but it is good that the bishops acknowledge positive aspects in the movement for LGBTQ+ equality and commit themselves to pastoral accompaniment even across difference.

To learn more about the tension between the church’s gender/sexual ethics tradition and the social justice tradition, and the argument for why Catholics can and should support LGBTQ+ non-discrimination by relying on the social justice teachings, see New Ways Ministry’s book, A Home for All: A Catholic Call for LGBTQ Non-Discrimination. In addition to the main text, the book contains 24 testimonies from leading Catholics, including several bishops, as to why they support non-discrimination policies, as well as resources for further learning.

Bobby Nichols (he/him) and Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, May 3, 2023

4 replies
  1. Paula Ruddy
    Paula Ruddy says:

    How can gender be the way humans manifest the “image of God”? Is “personhood” reduced to gender? I think the Nordic bishops’ letter is insulting, patronizing speech from the church’s dominating gender who are fearful of losing control.

  2. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM
    Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM says:

    At 70 I have very little time and patience for delusional, petty, insignificant thinking. So, I hold the conviction that no one, except God, can know who I am and how I was made. My life has been and still is the revelation of that. And it is for me to declare what that Divine definition is as it is revealed to me. I reject that any hierarchy or individual has the final word on my imago Dei. That’s why I have a conscience and the gift of discernment. If bishops, pundits and politicians don’t accept the revelation gifted to ME in my life, the blindness is theirs. And I pray for them.

    • Paula Ruddy
      Paula Ruddy says:

      Brava, Rosa. I find with age that, though I identity with many groups, I value individuality, my own and others, more highly. I also find that young people have fortunately been born into that consciousness. Takes a while to integrate the individuality with the common good, but I have hope for future generations in that regard. I ask myself, “What difference does it make to me if this person identifies as male, female, or non-binary?” What difference does it make to the bishops? Humans can be trusted to propagate the species and to work at developing the kingdom of God.

  3. Barbara P. Cotter
    Barbara P. Cotter says:

    Clearly these Scandinavian Bishops have over-thought this problem and rather than talking to someone living the life of a LGBTQ/Trans Gender person have issued a statement that makes little or no sense to anyone.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *